How can museums tell a new story of place?
Our greatest need today is to see life as whole, to see its many sides in their proper relations; but we must have a practical as well as a philosophical interest in such an integrated view of life.Patrick Geddes
In this session we were invited to explore bioregioning – defined as ‘a land and water territory… whose limits are defined by the geographical limits of human communities and ecological systems’. A bioregion is also defined by its social assets – the individuals, groups, networks and cultures – and invites us to trace new patterns of relationships and connections.
Bioregioning provides a holistic frame for us to think about ourselves and our place, now and in the future.
Isabel Carlisle introduced the key concepts and how they have been used in South Devon; Clare Cooper then traced her path from the Cateran Ecomuseum to the Bioregioning Tayside Initiative.
This session was particularly timely when Covid-19 has changed our awareness of place: so many of us have been spending much of our time in our immediate locality, indoors and outdoors. One participant spoke about how, when local parks were closed, local people had been clamouring for access to their natural heritage, and expressing a strong attachment to place as an integral part of their identity. Others pointed out that bioregioning is about much more than landscape: it also encompasses healthy cultivation, food systems etc. Again, Covid-19 has encouraged some of us to source food more locally. Some of us spoke about experiencing a new level of social connection and grass roots activism.
One participant was reminded of: ‘Wendel Berry’s work about place and caring for the people and place – nurturing the people and place as fundamental for ecological and social justice – flourishing in the now and in the future’. Some described ‘the land as a leveller’; others pointed out that there is landscape injustice as well as social injustice.
Another noted that in her city people would previously use buildings as local landmarks, and name the buildings but not describe themselves in relation to those buildings; now they pointed to open spaces and the activities they enjoyed in those spaces as their landmarks.
Some of us discussed the challenges of defining a bioregion, particularly in large cities where people may be disconnected from the resources that support them.
In the second part of the session, Alice Briggs described Ceredigion Museum’s work in exploring place and identity with local people: the museum is convening conversations and ‘holding the space’ for people to share diverse – sometimes conflicting – perspectives.
We then shared our thinking about museums and our practice: where does bioregioning resonate with things we are already doing? What might we do differently? Some of the thoughts and actions were:
- How might those geographies shape or provide possible containers for a new kind of museum or museum programme?
- an expansion of imagination
- motivating me to explore beyond my place of work
- how can I bring my professional skills to support my local community?
- conducting ourselves as citizens, as people with agency
- let’s start small, with one place e.g. a park or garden, micro bioregionalism rather than feeling overwhelmed by complexity
- thinking about Kith and Kin: place and life around us, interconnected
- collections as eruptions from the past, dynamic, to do with time, out of place, temporal rhythms
- focus on what museums do well – facilitating ecological and place-based thinking – rather than seeking to be a lead agent in creating a bioregion
- start from an ethics of care.
I am particularly taken by John Thackara’s invitation to create or re-purpose institutions as ‘place-based meeting points and hubs of learning’ for new ‘knowledge ecologies’ to nurture new skills and particularly how to help groups to work together. He draws on the experience of the 19th century:
The scale and complexity of learning we have to do now is demanding – but it is not unprecedented. The transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy… also entailed a profound transformation of knowledge and practice. To meet this challenge, numerous support services and regional institutions were invented to equip people with the skills to cope. They gave priority to participatory discovery, and experiential learning.John Thackara, ‘Bioregioning: Pathways to Urban-Rural Reconnection’, She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2019, pp.25-6.
Many ‘amateur’ societies which were the fore-runners of so many museums were places of learning new skills and ways of working: they were places of practical learning and experimentation, before laboratories. How can museums serve a similar purpose, as placed based meeting points and hubs of learning’ for the new skills we need today?
The session was the first in our No Going Back workshop series
Watch a recording of the presentations and plenary sessions
Resources from the presenters:
Bioregional Learning Centre
Daniel Wahl, ‘Museums as Bioregional Learning Centres in a Glocal World’:
John Thackara, ‘Bioregioning: Pathways to Urban-Rural Reconnection’, She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2019, pp.25-6.
Bridget McKenzie (Director, Climate Museum), ‘Museums and Bioregionalism’:
Douglas Worts, Heritage Planning for Sustainable Cultural Impacts